News Analysis

Got SMB credentials?

Matt Bolch, Contributor
Second in a series of articles based on the results of SearchSMB.com's exclusive salary survey.

Certify or not certify? That is the question. As small and medium-sized businesses (SMB) evaluate talent in an effort to make the best hire, the role of advanced degrees and certifications clearly remains questionable.

Educate thyself
At SMBs, advanced education and certifications vary for IT professionals.

Certification or
advanced degree
%
MS 7.8%
MBA 6.9%
MA 1.9%
Ph.D. 1.3%
Technical certifications 40%
Other 14%
No advanced degrees or certifications 28.1%

Source: SearchSMB.com's 2006 Salary Survey; 461 respondents

Everett Lockhart certainly believes in bettering himself. The lead Web applications developer at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas has a master's degree in computer science and a dozen-and-a-half certifications; so many, in fact, he can't name them all.

"Certifications help meet both my short-term and long-term goals," said Lockhart, who's worked in the tech field for seven years, earning about eight certifications before he was hired at Blue Cross Blue Shield four years ago and adding the rest since. "They help me keep abreast of current technology and, on the business side, help lay a solid foundation for the future."

But whether a fistful of certificates is beneficial at his present job remains unclear. "I'm not exactly sure [it helps] in a company like this, but I believe any little bit helps," Lockhart said. "Productivity and a little politics go a long way."

More than 28% of respondents to SearchSMB's Salary Survey said they had no advanced degrees or certifications. Four in 10, however, do have technical certificates.

The type of degree, certification and experience an employer is looking for can vary widely, depending on the position being filled, said Jon Davis, director of western operations at Matrix Resources Inc., an Atlanta-based IT staffing service that has placed more than 5,000 people in the past two years. For IT professionals under the age of 32, Davis said degrees and certifications play a larger role. But as experience mounts, documented work experience on specific projects overrides the need for certification.

"In general, any advanced degree would be a benefit," Davis said. "It will bring a higher salary, help you find a job or get you promoted quicker." Besides computer science and information technology degrees, many businesses prize an MBA, believing that applicants have the ability to better understand technology as it relates to the company's core business.

Even a bachelor's degree, regardless of emphasis, can be valuable to show the applicant can stick to a task. And as companies become more discriminating about hiring, certifications show a willingness to expand one's skill set, Davis said.

Craig Hunter, IT manager for the city of North Vancouver in British Columbia, was among the 6.9% of SearchSMB.com's Salary Survey respondents who reported having a master's of business administration degree. He also has a bachelor's degree in computers and a handful of certifications.

"I believe my MBA proved a willingness to step out of the IT box and look at the wider business world," Hunter said. "Did it make a difference? Probably."

Show your potential

Employers are looking for some combination of a degree, certificates and relevant experience, said Jim Johnson of Robert Half Technology, the IT staffing and consultancy firm. "They're specifically looking for people who are able to quantify what they've done in the workplace," Johnson said. Instead of listing work experience, employers want to know how potential IT employees have increased revenues or reduced expenses through work at their current company.

I believe my MBA proved a willingness to step out of the IT box and look at the wider business world.
Craig Hunter
IT managercity of North Vancouver, British Columbia
Julio Zelaya is also a believer in improving his marketability through degrees and certifications. The assistant IT manager at 1199SEIU Benefit and Pension Funds in New York has a bachelor's degree in computer information systems, is working toward a master's in computer science and has the following certifications: A+, Network+, Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer, Microsoft Certified Database Administrator and Cisco Certified Network Associate. He hopes to add a CCNP certification to his résumé soon.

Will his degrees and certifications help him advance? "I've been asking myself that same question," Zelaya said. "I'm waiting until I get my master's and see whether there is an opportunity to move up, or, if not, to move out. I'm getting tuition reimbursement, though, and the potential for growth is here."

At The Newberry Group Inc., a global IT consulting firm in St. Charles, Mo., company officials view certifications as "dessert" and a degree as the "meat and potatoes" of an applicant's résumé, said Steve Kelly, senior vice president of the 140-employee firm's commercial technology group. "We consider a degree higher than certifications," said Kelly, who's been involved in hiring nearly six dozen IT professionals in the past two years. "If a certification matches the skill set we're looking for, then that's a bonus."

But ranking equally high in importance are such soft skills as character, communication, time management, change management and whether the applicant is a team player. The firm counts on its recruiting staff to review résumés and talk to applicants with an eye toward those soft skills before referring finalists to the client.

And don't forget the small details, such as how a résumé is organized and writing a coherent cover letter, added Jay Heffernan, desktop support team leader at 1-800-GOT-JUNK, the franchised debris removal service based in Vancouver, British Columbia. Heffernan has combed through 250-plus résumés to fill five jobs in the past year, and he expresses dismay at some of the résumés that have crossed his desk.

"Many are not very professional, and some people seem to have forgotten those standards like how to organize a résumé or write a cover letter," Heffernan said. "Like most people, I'm pressed for time, and those go to the bottom of the pile." But once a résumé survives Heffernan's initial look, a combination of degree and appropriate certifications will merit closer examination.

More on IT careers
SearchSMB.com Salary Survey results

CIOs use boards to advance careers
Brent Carey's journey to his present job as technology director for the Otis School District R-3 in eastern Colorado is more representative of respondents to the SearchSMB survey who indicated they had no certifications. Carey graduated with a degree in geology in 1985 and couldn't find a job in his field. He once started at the top of several skyscrapers in Denver and worked his way down, personally visiting potential employers who said they admired his pluck, but he didn't have any experience.

So Carey started selling computers and later branched out to the technical side after discovering he didn't have the gift to be a salesman. During the past two decades in the field, he's worked in logistics, consulted on his own, done technical support for Novell Inc., taught computers in a prison and served as assistant network manager at another Colorado school district before moving to the director position at Otis 18 months ago.

"I'm probably more marketable now in the business world and the school world," Carey said of his journey, "because of the contacts I've made in the industry and the experiences I've had."

Matt Bolch is a freelance writer based out of Atlanta.


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